Is It Really Possible to Make Email Less Painful?


As I write this post, there are 64 emails sitting in my work inbox, of which nine are unread. I’m sure some of you are laughing right now: “Sixty-four emails? Honey, I’ve got over 2,000. Cry me a river.” Don’t hate. It’s been a slow day. And I ditched over a hundred of them before sitting down to write this post.

Anyway, here’s the approximate make-up of my inbox:

  • Messages that shouldn’t have even come to me
    • Stuff I was CC’d on for reasons I still don’t comprehend, because they have nothing to do with me or are an FYI that is kind of relevant but I really didn’t need; most of these are Reply Alls
    • Emails for one of two Kristins in my company, neither of whom is this KristEn because like a cyclops I have only one I (Get it?); most of these are also Reply Alls.
    • Random questions that should have been a Google search not an email
  • Messages that should be on a to-do list not in my inbox
    • Questions or requests that need my attention but I haven’t gotten to them yet, so they’re sitting in my inbox because I don’t want to forget about them. (Yes, I know this is bad. I’m working on it.)
    • Things I need to review (e.g., drafts I need to sign off on, summaries of decisions that affect my projects, etc.) but haven’t gotten to yet
  • Stuff I don’t want to forget but haven’t figured out where to put so I don’t lose it
  • Stuff I haven’t opened yet so who knows

Usually I also have several event reminders and social media digests, but I’ve cleaned those out already. And I’ve got 212 unread messages sitting in my “Interesting but Non-Urgent” folder, which is where I send all of my newsletter subscriptions using filters.

This isn’t horrible, but it’s not great. It feels like the Sword of Damocles is hanging over me every time I sit in front of my computer. I have all these fantasies and big plans for living at Inbox Zero, but I find myself barely hanging on all the time at Inbox Trying-Not-to-Cry. And seriously everyone hates email. I don’t know one person who loves it. I love the idea of email, but actual email is slowly sapping my will to live. Why is it so painful? And what can we do about it?

I keep staring at solutions like SaneBox — mostly because Facebook somehow knows that I hate email just like it knows I love workout tanks that say things like “I Run Because Punching People is Frowned Upon” and “Burpees Don’t Like You Either” and constantly puts the ads in front of me — and wondering: Is it really possible to stop hating email? Can we really tame the beast and bring it back to its original pure beginnings when it was useful instead of crushing? And we can, can we do it through some service or solution that won’t violate basically every technology and security requirement of all of my government contracts by giving a third-party service unfettered access to my confidential email?

There have been a lot of articles written about how to make email less awful and how to do it better, so I’m not going to repeat the same suggestions we’ve all heard a million times. (If you want some advice, though, I suggest you go here and here and here.)

But I have a question: If we KNOW Reply All is the devil and we KNOW we need to write descriptive subject lines and we K-N-O-W we should have a useful signature on every email including replies, why do we keep doing things that make email worse instead of better? Why do reasonably intelligent individuals fly in the face of common sense and insist on doing the very things that drive them nuts about email?

We’ve made the first step in admitting that we struggle with email. But perhaps the real first step is admitting email isn’t the problem; how we use email is the problem. And it’s not going to change unless we change.

What are your biggest email pet peeves? And what do you think would motivate people to change those behaviors in your organization? Leave a comment.

Kristen King is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Dennis Barrett

Well, as descriptive subject lines go, that one takes the cake. I clicked on it hoping for some fresh insight, and at least half expecting to see the same solutions I already know and would use if I still had time for email, but instead I found everything that the question encapsulated written out in long hand.

What’s was that called? The Socratic method? If I hadn’t been wrestling with the same problem myself, I wouldn’t even be here.

The only differences I see between the times when email has seemed like a tool, which I think I’m getting back to, and when it seems like I’m paddling up a waterfall are time and consistency. If you keep on top of it, it really isn’t all that bad. When you get busy and it piles up, you start missing the important messages amid the bulk of your unchecked emails.

So learn all the little tricks to organizing and managing your inbox, and figure out what works for you there, but whatever you do, make sure you keep doing it (unless you just auto delete everything; that’s really asking for trouble).

Which brings me to pet peeves: you asked if it’s really possible for email to be less painful. The key to avoiding email pain is to give them up. No one is perfect, and if your organization is healthy then you get new users all the time, who are going to continue to make the same mistakes as their predecessors, albeit with their own unique twists. Accept them. Mentor them if necessary. Just don’t keep pet peeves, because that’s actually where the passion in email comes from, not the marathon of getting through your inbox.

Thank you for picking my brain. I feel better already. And May the Fourth be with you.

Kristen King

You’re welcome, Dennis. And thank you. I love your perspective on pet peeves. Focusing on staying on top of things, picking a method and being consistent with it, and mentoring folks to better email behavior — these are the keys.

Insert joke about Return of the Fifth here.

Kristen King

YES. I like bullets and bold for key points.

I’ve been known to write a long email and then cut it down. Sometimes I get carried away! But I try to edit myself so as not to drive others bonkers.